"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Following Woolf 'To the Lighthouse'

To the LighthouseTo the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The lighthouse, so far as I can tell, might as well be the convenience store or carwash, or any number of mundane places that somehow become what any given day is all about for a family. Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is at least as concerned with time, or timing rather, as it is with place. But if you put a lighthouse out there in the distance, you can have chronically stationary characters say things like, Why don't we go there instead of sitting here? Then you have conflict. Then you have a moving plot, even as the characters remain stationary.

For much of this book, the main character seems to be the sociable Mrs. Ramsay. She embodies mother and wife as the hub of a family's identity and purpose. I've seen this in real life, at family reunions especially--groups of adults and children gathered together, relating and interacting with zeal. Yet if anyone is honest, they confide that the only reason the reunion is even happening is because the matriarch wanted and pressed for it. That's not quite what To the Lighthouse is about, but Mrs. Ramsay is that type of matriarch. She exhibits that type of hold on her friends and relatives. Her conflict becomes everyone's conflict. And in the book's first half that means debating the merit of a family outing to the lighthouse.

How does Virginia Woolf turn this mundane scenario into a full-length novel worth reading? To use a popular intellectual phrase, she unpacks it. With remarkable levels of detail, all which feel relevant and significant, she lays bare the myriad anxieties and distractions that live in an instant of time. Family get-togethers are laden with subtext (read baggage). Time can stall as you contemplate it. Suspense comes in the waiting for someone to speak, especially the man of the house--whom everyone mistakenly credits with being responsible for and in charge of the gathering.

To the Lighthouse was not a tremendously enjoyable read for me. Still, I found myself in awe of Ms. Woolf's sensitivity and insight. She fully explores the depth and significance of each moment. In so doing she justifies the plodding pace and the long sentences that I often had to read twice to grasp. This is not a convenient novel to read. It is not prose candy. Still, as one who has often lived life in the excruciatingly pensive way Woolf's characters do, I felt enriched by the prose.

Thank you, Virginia.

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